What Skill Challenges Aren’t

January 3rd, 2009

I’d promised this post a little while ago after reading Jonathan’s statistical analysis of skill challenge success rates over at The Core Mechanic.  I’m wary of the “echo chamber” effect — At Will has been posting a lot of skill challenges lately, there was a series of war-related challenges on The Core Mechanic recently, and Asmor offered some very good advice at Encounter-a-Day.

After thinking it over though, I remain convinced that there’s more to say.  The mechanic itself is pretty integral to the fourth-edition experience — it’s the first time a structure has been offered in D&D for long-term non-combat challenges involving the entire party.

It’s also one of the messiest and most misunderstood portions of the rulebook, even with the errata.  And this is a pity.  The designers of 4e developed a mechanic that could take the game — the default, rules-as-written game — into territory far beyond what was possible with earlier editions as-written.  And then they flubbed the execution and created widespread confusion.

What’s a skill challenge?  It’s a mechanical “wrapper” for handling extended gameplay periods that the combat system is not designed nor intended to handle.  Chases, diplomatic negotiations, infiltrations, traversing the wilderness, escaping a prison — all of these things and more can be handled with the skill challenge rules.  And if you’re willing to bend those rules in the right ways at the right times, you can achieve even more with them.  But it’s probably more helpful to take a look at what skill challenges are not.

Not a Substitute for Roleplaying

This is one of the criticisms 4e gets most:  that skill challenges replace roleplaying with dice-rolling.  It’s a little ironic, since 3e attracted the same criticism — a quick search on “diplomancer,” a character designed to overcome all encounters through incredibly-high Diplomacy skill, is enough to prove that.   But that’s not what 3e skill checks were meant to do, and that’s not what 4e skill challenges are meant to do, either.

A skill challenge can be run that way, to be sure.  In the same way, a combat can be run as nothing but die rolls.  But just as a combat run that way tends to get boring pretty quickly, a skill challenge run that way will suck the life out of the game.  (As a tangent, one of my main criticisms of the RPGA is that they tend to run skill challenges this way.)

A better way to run a skill challenge is to intersperse the skill checks with roleplaying.  If the party is negotiating, they’ll be speaking in character with the NPCs, and you can call for Diplomacy, Bluff, or Intimidate checks as necessary.  They may ask out-of-character questions of you as the gamemaster — often these can lead to Insight or knowledge checks.  Likewise, if the party needs to cross a wilderness without any supplies, you can ask what each member is doing, and call for checks as necessary — Athletics, Acrobatics, Nature, Perception, Stealth, even attack rolls (for hunting).

Good roleplaying or clever ideas should be worth a bonus on the skill check.  In exceptional cases, you might even award automatic successes, or remove failures.  The dice have a part to play — for one thing, they ensure that the brilliant and charismatic player with the Int 10, Cha 8 character doesn’t win based purely on player ability (which would be bad roleplaying, but roleplaying nevertheless).  But the dice shouldn’t be what dictates the flow of the skill challenge.  The roleplay should do that.

If you have a case where there’s very little roleplay to be had, that might be an indication that it really shouldn’t be a skill challenge.  Instead, see whether you can make it a simple check, or just narrate through it.

Not Trivial

The skill challenge mechanic should be used only when there’s a real chance of failure and real consequences for that failure, as Asmor suggests in his post.  What I’d add is that the consequences need to be significant in order to justify a skill challenge.

Diplomatic negotiations are a skill challenge because the party might fail to gain needed help, inadvertantly make enemies, push a neutral party toward their enemies’ side, or ruin their credibility.

Haggling over a piece of equipment is usually not a good skill challenge.  Even though there’s a consequence for failure, a higher price, that consequence is typically trivial.  There might be exceptional cases: if the PCs are haggling to buy a galleon or a plot of land, and the cost difference is significant, then it might be worth developing a skill challenge.  But do you really want to devote a large chunk of game time to whether the fighter saves 2g on that new sword or not?  That’s a situation where brief roleplay and a simple skill check is better for the game than extensive roleplay with a skill challenge.

Likewise, if the characters need to climb a mountain, and they’re not in any particular danger or under any time pressure, there’s no need to even make them roll checks.  Just figure that if it’s possible for them to do so, they’ll eventually manage it.  If it isn’t, they won’t.  Again, this is a situation where you might be better served asking for, at most, a single check, from the person with the highest (or the lowest) climbing or pathfinding skill, and using that to determine how long the effort takes.

Not a Dead End

While there need to be consequences for failing a skill challenge, those consequences should not be “the adventure can’t progress.”  As I pointed out in response to Jonathan’s post, the party isn’t meant to always win a skill challenge, any more than they always win a combat.  In fact, the odds for skill challenges are significantly worse in many cases.

Players are expected to fail a fair number of skill challenges, and the consequences for failure are supposed to introduce new obstacles and challenges to the storyline.  If the players fail in those diplomatic negotiations, it should make it more difficult for them to achieve their goals.  They’ll have to take a different approach, and they may have made enemies who will move against them.  But the goal should still be attainable.

If failing a skill challenge would end the campaign, or bring to a halt a major storyline that your group is enjoying, then you should think carefully about whether that should be a skill challenge in the first place.  Sometimes it should.  Many campaigns have had climactic combat encounters, so why not a climactic skill challenge?

Often you’ll be able to get around the “dead end” issue with some creative thinking about potential consequences — or your players will come up with an idea on their own.  But a GM inexperienced with the mechanic might easily make this mistake.

For instance, a skill challenge to track down a lich’s lair sounds appropriate.  But “you can’t find the lair” is not an appropriate consequence for failure, because it bars further adventuring.  A better consequence would be that an informant wants the party to do something else for him before he’ll give them the information, or the lich catches wind of the investigation and decides to strike first — inadvertently opening a new path of investigation.  There are plenty of other options, too; the key is that these consequences keep the game going, and keep things interesting for the players, even though they didn’t find the lair. They still could find it, in the future; meanwhile, a side quest or some attacks by the lich’s minions will keep things moving along.

Tangentially related:  While the odds of succeeding at a skill challenge are low by the book, I believe that small bonuses were intended to be relatively easy to get.  Offering those +2s for roleplaying or ideas not only encourages roleplaying, it also makes the challenge more likely to result in success.  (I also think the default experience reward is too low, by the book, for the difficulty.  That’s easily addressed by the individual GM, though.  I generally don’t give XP based on encounters, personally.)

Not a Sacred Text

Like every other part of the game, skill challenges are meant to be interpreted and adjucated by a GM.  The rules already explicitly allow you to award automatic successes or remove failure for creative use of powers.  You can do the same for excellent roleplaying.  You can judge that a given skill is worth two successes.  You can judge that a skill could remove failures instead of granting successes — if the NPC sees through your Bluff and gets offended, maybe you can use Diplomacy to calm him down.  You can allow for all manner of other appropriate rolls, not just skills — in the ‘skill challenges of war’ series on Core Mechanic, attack rolls are often options, and raw stat rolls might be useful sometimes too.  Just as you can improvise moves in combat, you can improvise solutions in a skill challenge.

Not Necessarily Stand-Alone

You don’t have to run a skill challenge as a separate block of time.  Try mixing a skill challenge with combat — maybe the characters need to disarm a trap in order to retrieve an artifact, while at the same time also fending off the mad cultists who possess it.  Maybe they need to tend to the injured captain’s severe wounds while also helping his remaining men hold off the invading forces.  This can be a great way to add a little extra pressure to both the combat and the challenge.

A bit more on bending the skill challenge rules to your purposes in a future post; this one’s long enough already.

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13 Comments

  1. Asmor, Jan. 3, 2009, 9:44 am:

    I’m wary of the “echo chamber” effect

    I wouldn’t worry about that too much if I were you… Good rule of thumb: if you have some new insight or opinion to add, then you’re in the clear (and you do).

    It’s also one of the messiest and most misunderstood portions of the rulebook, even with the errata. And this is a pity. The designers of 4e developed a mechanic that could take the game — the default, rules-as-written game — into territory far beyond what was possible with earlier editions as-written.

    Disagree here. I think the system, as presented in the book, is simply unusable, to the point that there’s nothing salvageable beyond the general idea. The designers of 4th edition did a lot of things right and had a lot of good ideas. Skill challenges were one of the good ideas, but unfortunately not one of the things they did right.

    What’s a skill challenge? It’s a mechanical “wrapper” for handling extended gameplay periods that the combat system is not designed nor intended to handle.

    I rather like that definition, actually.

    As I pointed out in response to Jonathan’s post, the party isn’t meant to always win a skill challenge, any more than they always win a combat.

    Question: How often in your experience do PCs not win combat? Coincidentally there was a combat where the PCs were forced to retreat a few sessions ago (they’d decided to attack a beholder who was way more powerful than them), but other than that I really, really have to stretch to think about combats in games I’ve run or played in where the PCs didn’t win. The only other one I can think of was a campaign-ending TPK when our epic-level characters were slaughtered by Yeenoghu…

    Asmor´s last blog post: Treasures & Trinkets: The Deck of Many Things

  2. Viriatha, Jan. 3, 2009, 9:49 am:

    I think that last piece of advice “Not Necessarily Stand-Alone” could be used by GMs of all systems. Over at Roleplaying Tips, they have something called a 5-Room Dungeon that is a system neutral process involving some pretty arch-typical encounter types. One of these is the Puzzle. This is again an illustration of how non-combat challenges tend to get segregated and separated. I think if we mix it up more, things can only be more interesting all around.

    Viriatha´s last blog post: Spells Page 2

  3. greywulf, Jan. 3, 2009, 10:24 am:

    Terrific post.

    I’m a big fan of Skill Challenges, and learned more about then from playing Tiny Adventures that I did reading the DMG. That facebook app is pure, 100% skill challenges-driven, and well worth playing for that reason alone. That’s my excuse, anyhow.

    One thing I picked up from that is the idea of having combat being a part of the skill challenge. Win the battle, and that’s one more step toward the number of successes required. This means combat can actually progress the story forward rather than be something designed to hold the players back. I quite like that idea.

    More!

  4. Scott, Jan. 3, 2009, 2:57 pm:

    @Asmor: I’m actually inclined to agree with you about the execution. Maybe I phrased that poorly. I think the idea is fairly revolutionary for D&D, though. (Of course, other systems have had similar ideas in place in the past, but it’s still a step up for D&D.)

    As far as combats… I’d say in my games, PCs “lose” about one in every nine or ten. I’m counting cases where they’re captured or forced to retreat as well as outright slaughters — a party kill is much rarer.

    If they’re prepared and know what to expect, they have a better win rate; a lot of losses come from ambushes and unexpected surprises.

    @Greywulf: I have to agree, Tiny Adventures is a terrific little program. It can be pretty inspirational, too. If only Wizards’ entire online initiative was of that quality.

    Combat as part of the skill challenge can be interesting. Of course, a loss in combat generally results in a failure of the challenge as well…

  5. greywulf, Jan. 4, 2009, 8:13 am:

    @Scott Exactly so :D Mind you, “loss in combat” doesn’t have to mean TPK. Perhaps the players have to keep a particular NPC alive in the battle, or get an amulet from one of the monsters. It he escapes, it’s still a fail. I try to make combat-in-skill-challenges more than just “kill ‘em until dead” encounters. More interesting that way :D

  6. JONATHAN, Jan. 4, 2009, 11:31 am:

    Thanks for the bump Scott! I’m glad you’re enjoying the Skill Challenges of War series!

    “The skill challenge mechanic should be used only when there’s a real chance of failure and real consequences for that failure” — I couldn’t agree more. Also, it is NOT a substitute for roleplaying. One of the complaints a friend of mine had recently about S.C. (who is not in my game, btw) was that, from his perspective, skill challenges simply slowed the game down. Whereas before, in 3.5E D&D, a single diplomacy or survival check might be needed to see if you convince the king, or find your way out of the forest, in 4E skill challenges break these sorts of things down into many rolls. My response… Yes.. exactly. That’s the point, SCs act to granulate the action outside of combat. The interaction with the king is much more than just one roll – its a whole scene, and (assuming you are willing to put your roleplaying into a framework) its success of failure should represent multiple actions.

    Also, SC’s are good because they allow the whole party the option to participate in previous challenges that would have been left to one player. How many times can I remember the brusers of the group simply sitting back and having no interest in the roleplaying – now they can still contribute.

    JONATHAN´s last blog post: The Two BEST RPG Blog Posts in 2008

  7. Scott, Jan. 4, 2009, 2:30 pm:

    Yes, exactly. And since any skill can be used, with sufficient in-character justification, every character can find something to do to contribute. True, some skills are going to be easier to succeed with than others, but the bookish, aloof wizard can now contribute to diplomacy by using his knowledge of history, and the rough-and-tumble warrior can try to impress the nobles by showing off with a feat of athletic skill.

    It’s not that this sort of thing wasn’t possible with earlier editions, but it relied entirely on the GM extrapolating from the printed rules. Now it’s codified in the printed rules.

  8. gamefiend, Jan. 5, 2009, 10:24 am:

    Thanks for the link Scott!

    I definitely agree with what you’re saying here.

    I look at skill challenges as a framework for tying roleplaying to game mechanics. Tons of systems do this already, but D&D has stayed out of doing this until the introduction of skill challenges.

    Obviously I’ve been working on a lot these lately, and in working with them I’ve been realizing a few things…

    1. Skill Challenges don’t have to be group affairs. I think that skill challenges can also work for individual scenes as well. A SC could easily be the rogue sneaking into an enemy encampment, or the fighter getting into a duel with his arch-rival, or two wizards having a duel. You have to be careful or the whole party ends up watching one character do their thing, but you can manage that in a way to keep everyone else from being bored.

    2. Skill Challenges are about actions, not skills. Yes, this is like my mantra, but it has lead me to some interesting places, like the Powers for War at Jonathan’s site, and a few more ideas that I are bubbling up to the surface and shall be revealed.

    3. Skill Challenges don’t have to have three failures. The other major option you have here is to have open-ended SCs and count failures, with some chart that referrences what x amount of failures means. So, you could have a search for a place happen, and the amount of failures could mean the difference between another group getting there first, or some NPC being alive or dead. In fact, one of the WotC published modules (Demonweb Enclave?) has an open-ended SC that does something similar to what I suggest.

    If this gets longer, it’s going to be a full out post.

    P.S. Scott, I’m going back to the paladin powers this week for an edit. What you said was dead on, and needs some addressing by yours truly.

    gamefiend´s last blog post: Pitch for the Slaughtervale.

  9. Donny_the_DM, Jan. 5, 2009, 4:18 pm:

    I was somewhat inspired by this post, so I wrote :)

    While not quite as elegant, I push much farther into the nonsense zone, enjoy!

    Donny_the_DM´s last blog post: HAVE A TPK NEW YEAR!!

  10. Scott, Jan. 5, 2009, 5:02 pm:

    @gamefiend: The bit about not having to have three failures was one of the “bending the rules” points I was planning to make. Great minds think alike, and so do ours! ^_-

  11. RPG Ike, Jan. 5, 2009, 5:50 pm:

    Nice post, Scott, and extremely well-timed as I gear up to run my first major planned skill challenge. I’m looking forward to your follow-up article.

    Your ideas have me questioning whether or not I should make escaping the crumbling fortress a skill challenge. Certainly it’s got the stakes for a skill challenge, and I can easily scale the number of failures and successes all the way from getting crushed to death, to catching the villain as he tries to escape with the artifact.

    My problem is that there’s little to no room for roleplaying in the challenge as I’ve set it up. What do you think?

    @ Greywulf: I had been avoiding Tiny Adventures for months now out of Facebook fear, but you’ve convinced to go check it out.

    Thanks again.

    RPG Ike´s last blog post: MOTHS!

  12. Scott, Jan. 5, 2009, 7:56 pm:

    @RPG Ike: I think I’d try to add some roleplaying into the situation. The setup is very cinematic, and it definitely feels like something appropriate for a skill challenge. You might be able to do so by drawing it out a little more, providing “snapshots” of the escape.

    “You feel the ground rumble beneath your feet as you hurtle down the corridor and burst through the iron door that now hangs unsteadily from one hinge. There are two ways out: a narrow, upward-sloping passage along which chunks of the ceiling are beginning to tear loose, and a more solid-looking corridor that stretches northward, probably paralleling the wall of the fortress.” That gives them an opportunity to discuss (read: argue) about which path to take.

    Alternatively, or additionally, you could try adding a combat element. Along their flight from the fortress, they stumble across a small band of the overlord’s minions. They’ll need to either fight their way past — and quickly — or convince the minions that they all need to work together to escape with their lives.

  13. RPG Ike, Jan. 6, 2009, 11:23 am:

    Excellent ideas! I’ll use both. Thanks, Scott.

    RPG Ike´s last blog post: MOTHS!

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